Not Even in a War Zone: Police Brutality, Armed Conflict, and the Use of Violence

by | Sep 7, 2020 | In the News, Justice, Race

There is a tendency among some commentators to defend the police officers who commit acts of violence against unarmed black people by describing what is suspicious about the victim. 

“George Floyd was a felon and intoxicated at the time of his death.” 

“Jacob Blake had a knife in his car.” 

“This or that person was non-compliant, etc….” Such statements are intended to justify police actions and discredit the protesters.    

The innocence, or lack thereof, of the slain suspects is irrelevant to the issue at hand. 

As a former Air Force officer, it disturbs me when I hear people making excuses for police violence. For the sake of argument, let us momentarily overlook the racial overtones of this violence and focus on just one aspect of the crisis: the extrajudicial killing of civilians. In that other arm of government that exercises violence, there are specific criteria that govern the legitimate use of force. The Law of Armed Conflict and Rules of Engagement will shed light on the trigger-happy culture of many police departments as compared to the standard that the US military tries to observe in war zones. 

Military personnel have an inherent right to self-defense. This principle informs the criteria under which force may be used against a person, be they civilian, terrorist, or otherwise. Deadly force is authorized only against a person who has been positively identified as hostile by legal declaration (e.g., known member of ISIS), by committing a hostile act (e.g., firing upon friendly forces), and/or unequivocally displaying hostile intent (e.g., pointing a weapon at friendly forces). A hostile person, in other words, demonstrates an unambiguous threat. 

Admittedly, many of the incidents of fatal police actions involve non-compliant suspects. It must be noted, though, that according to military standards mere non-compliance does not constitute a threat and does not warrant deadly force. To kill a suspected (not positively identified as hostile) insurgent under such circumstances would constitute a war crime. 

Police may say that they thought a suspect might have been reaching for a weapon. For the military, the simple possibility or fear of a threat, however, is not enough to determine either a hostile act or hostile intent. If a suspect is perhaps reaching for a knife in his car, he has yet to be positively identified as hostile. Even the visible possession of a weapon is not sufficient to identify a person as hostile. In fact, many innocent civilians in Afghanistan have weapons (much like in the United States). To engage a suspected insurgent in such a situation would be a war crime.

But what about suspects who are not only non-compliant but even resistant?  Would the military be allowed to use force in such situations?  Only within the bounds of military necessity and proportionality. Military Necessity is the principle of the Law of Armed Conflict which forbids the unnecessary use of violence outside of “the fight.”  Proportionality is the principle that violence, when authorized, cannot be excessive and cause damage to life or property disproportionate to the military advantage gained. In other words, the use of deadly force when there is no established threat of deadly force from the other is a war crime.

Those who rush to the defense of the police officers involved in the extrajudicial killing of people of color must consider this fact: the forces of government violence are slower to use deadly force in a war zone then they are within the United States. This is a dehumanizing reality felt by people of color. It is yet another example of systemic racism that law enforcement is quicker to engage black civilians than the military is to engage suspected insurgents in a war zone. This is in no way to suggest that combat restrictions should be loosened, but to urge that some such restrictions should be placed on all agents of government violence, including law enforcement.


In the Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus prevents the extrajudicial killing of what seems to clearly be a guilty party, saying “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (Jn 8:10-11). Jesus disapproved of the proposed killing regardless of her guilt. If the woman had been noncompliant and resistant (a natural response to a murderous mob), Jesus’ merciful response would not have been any different.  Murder was not acceptable then, nor is it acceptable today, especially by the police.


Joseph Nolla, SJ   /   @JosephNollaSJ   /   All posts by Joseph